Defend Truth


What Ma Winnie can teach us about politics, power and women’s lives in the Struggle


Dr Annie Devenish is a historian and researcher with an interest in gender, activism and identity in the Global South. She has published on feminism within anti-colonial politics, the history of the women’s movement, and women’s life writing in India and South Africa, as well as labour activism, the informal economy and traditional health practitioners in South Africa. Her book, Debating Women’s Citizenship in India 1930-1960 (Bloomsbury, 2019), explores the making of gendered citizenship in Indian nationalist and feminist politics. She is a lecturer in the History Department at the University of the Witwatersrand. Email: [email protected]

Regardless of how one might choose to interpret and understand Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, one thing is certain, and that is that Winnie’s life and legacy as anti-apartheid activist, and wife, then ex-wife to Nelson Mandela, one of the most famous figures of the 20th century, reveals much about the way women’s experiences and identity are so often sidelined in struggle narratives.

The death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela earlier in April 2018 has led to an outpouring of commentary and tribute on the life of this remarkable and courageous personality. What has been interesting to see is how divergent this commentary has been, from outright adoration to harsh criticism. Love her or hate her, Winnie certainly evokes strong emotions.

At the heart of many of these commentaries is an attempt to make sense of Winnie Mandela’s life and legacy. Pieces like that from the UK’s Guardian newspaper have presented Winnie as a fallen heroine mired in corruption and scandal.

On the opposite side of the spectrum commentators such as Pascale Lamache have sought to bring into focus Winnie’s unrecognised contribution to the Struggle, putting forward a case for why and how this contribution has been undermined. Lamache’s 2017 documentary Winnie presents material suggesting that Winnie was systematically targeted and discredited by the apartheid government and the new ANC dispensation.

Then there has also been analysis that has sought to reconcile what are often presented as the contradictory aspects of her personality, her heroic bravery and courage with a Winnie unable to stand up and acknowledge her mistakes. A victim in her own right, brutalised by the apartheid system – including 18 months in solitary confinement, house arrest, banishment and constant police surveillance and harassment – who then herself becomes the instigator of violence and brutality through her involvement in the kidnapping and murder of Stompie Seipei.

Regardless of how one might choose to interpret and understand Madikizela-Mandela, one thing is certain, and that is that Winnie’s life and legacy as anti-apartheid activist, and wife then ex-wife to Nelson Mandela, one of the most famous figures of the 20th century, reveals much about the way women’s experiences and identity are so often sidelined in struggle narratives.

Stand by your man

Being part of a power couple gave Winnie access to authority and influence in the ANC and the international community but it also ultimately meant that she was never to be seen or understood as a person in her own right; she was always to be associated and evaluated in relation to her famous husband. And there has been a double standard to this evaluation, both in relation to her personal life and her advocacy of violence as a legitimate tool of the anti-apartheid struggle. Certainly it appears as though history and society has judged Nelson Mandela’s mistakes, many of which are acknowledged in his autobiography, less harshly than those of Winnie.

Another consequence of this association has been the lack of recognition or understanding of Madikizela-Mandela as an autonomous political figure. As Vashna Jagarnath has shown in her piece ‘Remembering Winnie as a young woman’ in The Conversation (4 April 2018), Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s politics and personality were being shaped long before she met Nelson Mandela both in her childhood and through her early career as a social worker which brought her into contact with the suffering of black working class families under apartheid. Her commitment to the upliftment of her people in fact led her to give up the opportunity to study in the United States, to take up a position as the first black woman social worker at Baragwanath hospital in Johannesburg, a remarkable achievement in its own right.

Women in the Struggle, such as Madikizela-Mandela, have often had to negotiate their gendered roles very carefully, which could be harnessed as a source of power, but which could equally come to be seen as a liability or threat.

Winnie’s popularity and power among the masses, and her approachability, grounded in what Shireen Hassim describes as “the visceral connection that she was able to make between the everyday lives of black people in a racist state, and her own individual life” (Shireen Hassim, ‘Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: revolutionary who kept the spirit of resistance alive’, The Conversation, 3 April 2018) were crucial for galvanising mass support and keeping the spirit of resistance alive. After the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 and the release of her husband from prison, however, this power came to be seen as more of a challenge and a threat. Then there was also the question of Winnie’s radicality, which challenged the mood of the transition with its non-racialism and non-violence.

Keep the home fires burning

Like many activists at the coalface, Winnie sacrificed the comforts of marriage and family life for the Struggle. The 22-year-old Madikizela married the 40-year-old Mandela in 1958. Six years later he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Being Mandela’s wife, she was in a unique position to represent her husband. By acting as the public face and political voice of Mandela, and by extension the ANC itself, and by raising Mandela’s daughters Zindzi and Zenani, who were themselves to become representatives and symbols for their father, Winnie played a crucial role in keeping the Struggle alive both within South Africa and internationally.

Not only did she maintain the Mandela family, but she provided emotional and financial support to the families of thousands of other activists across South Africa, a contribution repeatedly acknowledged in the many of the tributes to her.

There is much work still to be done to better understand the interaction between public and private in struggle histories. Certainly an important aspect of Madikizela-Mandela’s contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle, which has been largely overlooked, was this maintenance of friendships and personal relationships, and the provision of moral and financial support, actions hidden away in the private sphere but which were crucial to sustaining the energy of activism in the public sphere.

Small acts of defiance

In her autobiography, Part of My Soul, Madikizela-Mandela talks about her banishment to the isolated town of Brandfort in the Free State in 1977, a place she describes as her own “little Siberia”. During her stay here she plainly refused to use the designated black entrance of the local police station and post office, but instead marched through the “whites only” entrance. She also dared to enter “whites only” shops to do her shopping, leading to the flight of the regular customers, large Afrikaans women, who waited outside until she had finished. Madikizela-Mandela made sure to always take her time to get what she needed, even if it was just a bar of soap, just to keep them waiting.

This was typical of Winnie, and it was the equivalent of giving them the finger. It displayed her I-don’t-care and I’m-not-afraid-of-you attitude. In a context where it wasn’t possible to resist the state politically and collectively, these personal acts of defiance were highly significant. One can say that they were a way of performing power.

Likewise, Winnie’s impeccable dress sense and her incorporation of clothing in the ANC colours and adornment of traditional Xhosa and Zulu accessories provided another gendered way of performing power. They sent a message to the apartheid state that said “I am proud of myself and my heritage, I will not be diminished or defined by you”.

Struggle heroes don’t always govern well

The Zuma years have shown just how important it is for us to be critical of our struggle heroes. A contribution to the Struggle and loyalty to the ruling party should not inherently entitle individuals to positions in government. Rather, these need to be earned through competency and service to the people. Madikizela-Mandela’s frequent absences in Parliament during her time as MP suggest that she could have done more in her role as a people’s representative to engage with, develop and monitor the implementation of policies aimed at building a more just South Africa.

Equally, as a former president of the ANC Women’s League (1997-2003), Winnie should have taken a firmer stand against the way members of the league behaved during Zuma’s 2006 rape trial, especially with regards to their intimidation of Khwezi, and their open defence of Zuma.

In her recent memoir Always Another Country Sisonke Msimang talks about the danger of a continued uncritical commitment to the idea of the “struggle hero” in the post-apartheid era, and the misguided sense of hope and belief in such heroes as infallible icons in whose hands we can trust the building of a new society.

Looking at Winnie’s life and legacy critically shouldn’t undermine her unique and important role, or her contribution to the Struggle, they are more an attempt to acknowledge the complexity of her as a historical figure. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s spirit of outspokenness and her refusal to care what others think, which meant that she was no stranger to criticising the ANC itself, might even agree that if we want to move forward we need to hold our leaders to account inasmuch as we acknowledge and celebrate their contribution to making such progress possible. DM


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